Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On "The Object of Desire" by Gary Pedler (10676 words) ****

Here's a story without a lot of pretensions, well executed, and complex. It has what, unfortunately, is missing from so many stories on the Web, mostly because of the medium's incessant demand that authors be concise. However, with such brevity, it's impossible to flesh out stories as nuanced as this one. Take Alan, a homosexual adolescent who is wrestling with his feelings--and who is also, in so many ways, a typical adolescent in his smart-aleck remarks to others, for example. Or his parents, who just want to help but don't exactly know how--and then fear that what help they've forced Alan into taking isn't quick enough or effective. Or Dr. Kirst, who assesses Alan's problems for us at the end of the story--or does he? Are these Alan's problems or the projections of others onto Alan or a combination of both? This is a story that looks at some tough personal issues and doesn't flinch, doesn't simplify, doesn't politicize, and doesn't preach. This is a story that just shows the way things are, that offers, to what extent it can, a little understanding. Read the story here at Prick of the Spindle.

On "Palm-of-the-Hand Stories" by Yasunari Kawabata ***

Kawabata's "palm-of-the-hand" stories are all short, all what we would now call flash fiction or short shorts. Few go longer than five pages. Many are only a couple of pages. Flash fiction is hard to do memorably. And that's partly what I feel after having finished this book--that I don't remember much of it. Few of the stories had staying power with me. What Kawabata seems to be doing is presenting simple moments of enlightenment, the same thing Japanese do in haiku or tanka verse, only now in the form of short shorts. We get by and large everyday experiences blown up to some small transcendent thought. On their own, the stories are fantastic, but as a whole they begin to blend in to one another.

I think of another short story craftsman--and especially of his collection of really sharpened bits, What We Talk about When We Talk about Love--Raymond Carver. Even in Carver's oeuvre there are many stories that, while good alone, don't stand out within a whole collection. But there are also ones that do. I think the difference is that Carver's commonplace is often strange. I can say, that's the one about the couple pouring Teachers over one in the motel room. That's the one about the couple buying a living room set in the front yard.

I don't feel like I can do that so easily with Kawabata, given that the commonplace really is commonplace. Right now, because these stories are fresh in my head (having read them today as opposed to yesterday), I can say, That's the one about the blue jay that fell from the tree and the girl saves it. Or that's the one about the kid making paper boats and wanting them to fight, and a crippled woman who had a fiancé who appears to have backed out of the wedding. That's the one about the man who drew pictures of flying horses with a girl when he was young--she never went on to marry, but he did--and now, in his old age, suddenly knowing loneliness, he's having visions of flying horses and a girl on them, a girl in black, an old woman. That last story, I remember, I think, because it managed to be chilling by its end. The first two I remember in part because this is the second time I've read them.

And that leads me to another point. Perhaps, in reading the collection through only once I have missed something. The fact is that those stories I had read before stuck out more. It's possible that were I to read this book again, I might just feel quite differently about it, might find it not just pleasant but incredible.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

On "For the Dogs" by Katie Flynn (3084 words) ****

Maybe it was the pool party, but this one hooked me in and didn't let go. I say this with some surprise because I didn't find the story to be heavily plotted, and it wasn't the kind of story where I was reading as fast as I could to get to the end. Perhaps, the hook was in the characters--or perhaps in the situation as it involved these characters. Tricia returns to her childhood home to find things are not as they used to be--not that they have been that way for a long time. Her father has remarried, and a houseguest has moved into Tricia's old room. Amid all this, Tricia tries to find something to hang on to, tries desperately to see if there might still be a place for her in her father's life. Maybe there always has been--or maybe there never was. This story is poignant and sad. Read it here at the Big Ugly Review.

On "My Beatles" by Makoto Satoh ***

This is the second of two plays I read tonight. Written in the 1960s, it maintains much of the absurdity that contemporary drama is often known for. I think of playwrights like Sam Shepard and Samuel Becket. I like the former, and the latter has his moments. Satoh's play has its moments too and on the whole seems quite entertaining. I think I'd enjoy seeing this staged. It's a play within a play, and sometimes a play within a play within a play. It involves actors practicing a play; it involves an audience breaking in and insisting on watching the practice. And it involves an audience actually taking part in the play, forcing it to its conclusion. And did I mention that that audience is the Beatles? Yes, that's right, the Fab Four. You couldn't have a better audience than that.

On "Don't Call It Christmas" by Ryan Harty (11398 words) *****

Simply put, this is one of the best contemporary stories I have read. I came across Harty's work in a review. I was curious enough that I did a search for him online and found this. This in turn caused me to go buy his collection. There are some other very fine stories in that collection (Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona)--most especially "What Can I Tell You about My Brother"--but none of them, for me, match up to this first encounter I had with Harty's work. Sad, like so many of the stories in this collection, and full of heart. And better yet, they're all set out West, in Arizona--reminding me of the open spaces and the desert of my childhood that I sometimes miss. In this piece, a man takes in a homeless girl and slowly falls for her. Only bad things can happen, right? Read the story here at the Missouri Review.

On "Chushingura: The Forty-Seven Samurai" adapted by Nakamura Matagoro II and James R. Brandon **

I finally, this weekend, after several weekends of either heavy freelance work or heavy socializing (out-of-town visitors; great concerts), have a chance to read a couple of Japanese plays I've had my eye on but which appear in a book much too large for me to simply take with me, in my backpack, to work so that I could read them on the bus or during lunch. Alas, I did take a walk this evening and have a girl in a car who I made eye contact with or who made eye contact with me gesture for me to come over and talk. Shy self that I am, I merely waved. Maybe I could have had a date. Instead, I rushed home to finish what I'd planned--to read these two Japanese plays. My date, this evening was with Chushingura and with Makoto Satoh. One could do worse, I suppose.

The version of Chushingura that I read was adapted for the stage in 1979. The play itself is a traditional one that has been adapted for stage over the course of the last two and a half centuries. Modern versions shorten it for modern audiences (the full play can take fourteen hours). The story is that of a famous series of incidents that occurred in Japan between 1701 and 1703. One nobleman slightly injures another (in the play, it is because the other is making passes at the first nobleman's wife); as a result, the first nobleman is ordered to kill himself by the shogun. The nobleman's samurai/retainers feel obliged to revenge their master's death and so plot to kill the other nobleman. The samurai, in avenging their master's death, do something noble but also break the law. The result is that they too are ordered to kill themselves. In Japan, at this time, ritual suicide is an honorable death--as compared to simply being killed by one's enemies. This adaptation covers only up to the point where the forty-seven samurai get their revenge. Chushingura is a kabuki play, and I can see why none of the other anthologies of Japanese literature contained kabuki within them. It is does not translate very well to our traditions. I credit the adaptors with bringing something to the stage that would allow people to watch the play more easily. But for me, sword fighting and martial arts theater is a hard sell, and Chushingura, unfortunately, never made it past that for me (unlike, say, a film like Hero, which ends up seeming like so much more).

Friday, August 22, 2008

On "Crowbar" by Joshua Capps (5809 words) *****

For all the mention of how many 9/11 stories there are, I haven't seen a lot of them, not in fiction, that is. Maybe editors are keeping them away from us. Maybe this is wise. I could see the subject easily being overdone. And I could easily see it being treated with too much sentimentality--today's soap opera classic. Joshua Capps's "Crowbar" definitely isn't sentimental. In fact, I think some people might even find it offensive, though Capps gets away with it because it's not Capps who's potentially offensive but the character at the heart of this story. But it's this character, this no-holds-barred selfish character who makes the story so readable, so interesting, so harsh, so sad. Read the story here at Storyglossia.

On "Contemporary Japanese Literature: An Anthology of Fiction, Film, and Other Writing since 1945" edited by Howard Hibbett ***

This anthology from the 1970s provides a good selection of post-World War II authors. Many of these authors I wasn't familiar with, but others--given the time that this anthology was published--I was rather surprised to see in the anthology. That is, the editor seemed to have a good grasp on which authors would have staying power. Mostly, however, I chose to read the anthology, amid all the other reading of Japanese literature I'm doing because I wanted exposure to authors I hadn't already read or didn't know about. A few of them stood out, but the ones who tended to stand out the most, interestingly, were those whose work I was already familiar with. Call it a bias of familiarity, I suppose, but there might also be something in the quality of the material that suggests why their work has gone on to be more familiar than some of the other authors included here. The book included these selections:

Yoshikichi Furui, "Wedlock" (story)
Taeko Kono, "Bone Meat" (story)
Kobo Abe, Friends (play)
Shotaro Yasuoka, "Prized Possessions" (story)
Nobuo Kojima, "The American School" (story)
Akira Kurosawa, Ikuru (screenplay)
Yasujiro Ozu, Tokyo Story (screenplay)
Taijun Takeda, "To Build a Bridge" (story)
Yumiko Kurahashi, "To Die at the Estuary" (story)
Yukio Mishima, "The Boy Who Wrote Poetry" (story)
Yasunari Kawabata, "The Pomegranate," "The Camellia," "The Plum," "The Jay," "Summer and Winter," "The Bamboo Leaves," and "The Cereus" (stories)
Mitsuhara Kaneko, "Song of Loneliness," "The Sun," and "The Receiver" (poems)
Hiroshi Sekine, "Abe Sada," "The Golden Pavilion," and "Dream Island" (poems)
Ryuichi Tamura, "The Man with a Green Face" and "Human House" (poems)
Minoru Yoshioka, "Still Life" (1), "Still Life" (2), "Paul Klee's Dining Table," and "Nude Woman" (poems)
Mieko Kanai, "The House of Madam Juju" (poem)
Akira Abe, "Peaches" (story)
Junichiro Tanizaki, "The Bridge of Dreams" (story)
Tatsuo Nagai, "Brief Encounter" (story)
Junnosuke Yoshiyuki, "In Akiko's Room" (story)
Kenzaburo Oe, "Aghwee the Sky Monster" (story)
Akiyuki Nosaka, "American Hijiki" (story)

Highlights of the anthology included the first piece, by Furui, which was about a fairly young couple living in an apartment building among young rowdy workers. The couple's male half, who typically spends his days at work, gets sick, so he gets to spend time learning what his wife's life is like during the day.

Another interesting one was Kobo Abe's play Friends. The situation essentially involves a family that decides that its duty is to help out people who live alone, people who must obviously be lonely. The way to do this is to move in with the single person and make him part of your family. (Never mind that in this case, the man had a fiancée.) So this family comes and takes over his apartment, and the man is unable to get rid of them. They live off all that he earns, eat all that he brings home for food. The play is rather absurd, as many plays are, but enjoyable. It reminded me in a way of a Japanese film I did not like called Audition, in which a woman "auditions" to be a man's girlfriend (he poses as a director in order to find a girlfriend, auditioning each one); the situation soon becomes disturbing as she proves to be psychotic. (In the play's rather absurd premise it also reminds me of a great Japanese film that I loved called After Death, but I won't go into that here.) Friends is a pleasant and light play; Audition is not pleasant or light--it is horrifying. But they both share that same dubiousness regarding connection and family and duty, all of which I would guess carry much heavier feelings of obligation than they do in the West. Hence, by the end of the play, when the man is literally caged, like an animal, to teach him a lesson (if only he'd appreciated the family that had moved in with him, he could have just enjoyed the experience rather than being so miserable and having to be punished), one gets a sense the author is drawing some sort of parallel to the idea of family within the culture as a whole.

Akira Kurosawa's screenplay was also really good--and, I think, more concisely written than Abe's play. I've only Kurosawa's Ran. It's these stories of traditional Japan for which he seems most famous here in the States, but the editor of the anthology notes that Kurosawa actually prefers his films about contemporary Japan. For my taste, if most of them are like this screenplay, I can see why. I was not a huge fan of Ran, but I really liked Ikuru. The film is about a man who works for a bureaucratic section of the government. The job of government employees seems to be mainly to avoid letting people get help--each employee just passes customers to the next employee and on it goes down the line. One of these bureaucrats, however, learns he's dying of cancer and doesn't have long to live. So the rest of the film, he's questioning his purpose in life. And by the end, he has found it--fighting the bureaucracy of which he is a member. It was a pretty upbeat movie, with a share of funny moments.

Of the poetry, Mieko Kanai's "The House of Madam Juju" stood out the most to me--an exploration of Japanese beauty, as it has been commercialized for women.

Akira Abe's story "Peaches" is about memory--one memory. The character thinks about a time when his mother and he pushed a stroller of peaches down a hill, and it was a cold winter night, and his mom put her shawl around him. But then he deconstructs the memory, noting that the events could not have happened as he remembered them. There would not be peaches in winter. So which part of the memory is he making up? He circles round and round, trying to sort out all the various events that may have led to this one memory. In the end, he never does figure it out. Sometimes, I think keeping a diary could be of use for precisely this. I know that one time I was recounting something I'd done, and then I went back and checked a diary I had kept of the events and realized I'd merged several days of events into one day. But I don't generally keep a diary. I wonder how many other events have gotten merged and messed up in my head over the years. "Peaches" was an interesting exploration of how our minds trick us.

Perhaps the best short story in the book was by Kenzaburo Oe. I say this with some surprise, having read Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids a few years ago and not having been that moved by it. It was fine, but nothing that made me want to read more of his stuff. But "Aghwee the Sky Monster" is a piece I think I will remember for a while. It's about a man hired to take care of a musician who has supposedly gone insane--the musician has a baby in the sky who comes to visit him from time to time; conversations ensue, which, of course, embarrass the young caretaker. But there's a big back story that readers slowly discover, which makes the intriguing and ridiculous situation even more interesting. I'll have to give another Oe novel a read.

The last story, "American Hajiki," is a humorous piece that echoes some of the themes of Friends, but puts those themes in a political context. It's about a man who lived during World War II whose wife has invited some Americans to take a Japanese vacation at their home. The wife had previously visited them in America and has been a pen pal for some time. The husband is none too pleased by the wife's offer. The lead-up to the visit and eventual visit are mixed with the man's memories of the early postwar days. The man comes to wonder why it is that, in the end, who always ends up "serving" his American masters--and so wanting to serve them, despite the fact that they killed his father. There's quite a bit of humor amid the various cultural misunderstandings that go on.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

On "China Mobile" by Summer Block (3381 words) ****

Stories in exotic locales or involving exotic characters have long enchanted, almost always in part because of the exoticism itself. Good stories, however, do more than just show off the exoticness. Sometimes they manage to convey a sense of place and time and character that makes one think for a moment, "Yes, I too was there," even though of course you weren't. This is one of those. "China Mobile" does this in part by running down a description of a list of friends, friends like Chloe, who "was more than just pretty, but . . . was also pretty." A few sentences on each, a few comments on drinking and getting along, and one gets a sense of this narrator's world. It is a small place, just one little microcosm in something so much larger, so much larger that it is beyond words. We can't know China, but we can know this one little piece of it--a piece of it that is at base still American. One of the things I admired so much about Jay McInerney's novel Ransom, on first read many years ago, was the way it was able to conjure up a world similar to this, a world of American exiles at "home" in some strange, weird place. Block manages something similar here, but without the excesses of plot that made Ransom seem far fetched. Read the story here at Stirring.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

On "Secretary" by Mary Gaitskill (6060 words) *****

Some of you may be familiar with the movie Secretary, which came out about five years ago. That film is an erotic love story involving S&M. The brainchild for the film, however, was Gaitskill's story of the same name, but the direction that the two works take is decidedly different. The movie is a romance. The story is goes in the direction we would more likely expect--a certain disgust with the actions of the boss. What makes it compelling, however, is the main character who, as in the movie, seems turned on by her boss's actions. But here it isn't simplified. Here, the girl's interest is offset by her own uncertain feelings about herself and her life, her own lack of confidence. The ending, as one might expect, is very different from the movie. Gaitskill's work revels in these awkward situations created by our own untoward desires. Not surprisingly, this story is in a collection called Bad Behavior. Read the story here at Nerve.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

On "Some Things You Should Know about Me before We Meet" by Josh Honn (1037 words) ****

Some stories take what should be a rather mundane subject and put them in a form that makes them, if not fresh, definitely funny. Amy Havel does something similar in her story "Enough Said" that I blogged about earlier--telling us a story of a relationship in a few simple phrases repeated over and over, until the story takes on a tragic tone. Here, Honn tells us the story of a relationship in the form of a letter--an introductory letter. The concept makes the whole story seem preposterous, and yet in that is the humor, because although we know all these things are indeed quite likely, we pretend that they aren't. There is an agreement to be silent. What if, however, we all gave such spiels before dating? Wouldn't it be so much easier? No expectations beyond what we already know . . . Read the story here at Pindeldyboz.

On "Sad Toys" by Takuboku Ishikawa, translated by Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda ****

Here's the reason I read the Romaji Diary--because Sad Toys was in the same book, and I didn't feel like I could justify just reading the book I was actually curious about, didn't feel like I would be giving Ishikawa full attention if I just read the more appealing work. While the Romaji Diary shows many of Ishikawa's most personal feelings in prose during a time of relative poverty (when was he not poor) but good health, Sad Toys is a collection of poetry put together near the end of his life while he was wasting away in a hospital bed. And Sad Toys is quite amazing.

Start just with the title. Toys--that is poems. For poems really are in many ways a poet's toys. For some who write poetry, poems are word puzzles. You take them apart, put them back to better, try to find the best way for all the words to fit, and there's no end to the process. Now, take a poet like Ishikawa, put him in a hospital at a time when he's becoming increasingly aware of his mortality, and clearly, such toys become sad--sad because that's all there is of his life, sad because he's dwelling on sadness. Many of the poems talk about his hospital stay. Many about his coming death, his desire for death (to relieve himself of pain) and his desire to keep on living. And some poems talk about the change in perspective that comes with such events. In one of my favorites, number 75, Ishikawa talks of reading old love letters. His observation? (All of the poems are typically Japanese, typically short--they're tanka.) So many spelling errors. And how true, really, years down the road, when we're no longer madly in love with someone we're just getting to know, all those little peccadilloes come to the fore. We don't speed through a letter the same way; rather, we say, You know, that woman/man never did spell very well! Such are the observations throughout this little gem.

On "Romaji Diary" by Takuboku Ishikawa, translated by Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda **

Diaries, for me, are generally a tough sell, ranking probably only above collections of letters and computer manuals. This would seem to be somewhat counterintuitive. After all, a glimpse into someone's private life should be fascinating--we all like to snoop. But snooping into the life of someone we don't know who knows a bunch of people we don't know? Ishikawa's diary is apparently renowned for its forthrightness, its willingness to tell all, no matter how bad it makes the narrator look. In that sense, it has much in common with From a Darkened Room, the abridged-abridged diary of Arthur Inman. What it doesn't have in common are two other things. For a Western reader, there are not really any insights into current events of the time (in fact, I'd say the diary on the whole is more personal save a few catty comments about other literary people, all of them Japanese). Rather than a lifetime of journaling, Ishikawa's diary takes place all within two months. Perhaps the more interesting thing about Ishikawa's book is the manner of writing it--in Romaji, the Roman alphabet, rather than the Hiragana symbols more typically used, and for the time even more radical because Romaji was not even common as a tool. As the translator notes, this was like an English speaker writing in Esperanto (or I might say more like writing English using the Arabic alphabet). Why? To keep others from reading it, I suppose. I guess someone must like such things enough to publish them, however.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

On "This Person" by Miranda July (1049 words) *****

I first came across Miranda July when a friend of mine recommended her movie You and Me and Everyone We Know. It took me about a year to get around to seeing it--as many such suggestions take time to get around to--but once I did, I certainly enjoyed it, as she noted I would. It was quirky in a rather friendly sort of way--and yet it was also kind of disturbing. Disturbing yet reassuring. Those two don't usually go together. I heard about her forthcoming book a short while after that and was quite interested but never got around to buying it. One day, in a fit of sudden Miranda July interest inspiration, I searched for said book on the Net. Somehow, I ended up at the Library of Congress, where one of the stories from her collection No One Belongs Here More Than You is actually posted with the information. I read it, loved it, and quickly--well, within a year--rushed out and bought the book (let's say it quickly went on my list, and then when I had money, I purchased it). I loved the book, much as I loved the story. The collection is uneven, like most--high flying in places, a bit disappointing in others--but great reading all the same.

As for this story, it's one of my favorites in that collection. I love how July is able to capture the incredible weight that a social occasion or party can pose to someone. The use of "someone," "somebody," and "this person" as the protagonist makes the character into an everyman (or -woman--the character has breasts), but it also makes the story seem rather nonsensical and flirty--the way you might hear some parent say something like, "Someone has a birthday today" (as if you--the birthday girl/boy--don't know). And that's what makes the story so funny and powerful. The lengths to which "someone" gets used--someone gets to have a party or someone gets to go blind or . . . Just read the story, and then buy the book.

On "Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings" by Matsuo Basho, translated by Sam Hamill ***

Japanese poetry, from what I've read, is inevitably short. The forms in such poetry lend themselves only to brevity, moments of keen observation, epiphanies without with long stories leading into them. The best moments in Basho's haiku's are exactly that--statements one must ponder about in wonder before being able to move on.

This book features a selection of Basho's haiku, along with a few of his prose travel writings, many of which contain haiku within them and explanations of how those haiku arose. I'm not much of a fan of the travel writing. With the exception of Parker's The Oregon Trail and the Lewis and Clark journals (albeit in abridged form), I don't know that I've encountered any pre-twentieth-century travel writing I've greatly enjoyed--perhaps the observations of such early travelers rarely transfer to me in my context now. Even in the travel writing, Basho is at his best when he delivers to his readers tiny but profound observations that apply to all throughout time, such as this one from his Sarashina Travelogue: "Then the servant mounted the horse, ignoring the danger. He began to doze off and nearly tumbled over a cliff. With every nod of his head, I was stricken with terror. Thinking it over, I ralized that each of us is like the servant as we wade the shifting tides of this stormy world, blind to real danger."

As for the haiku, Basho is wonderful, though my own lack of knowledge of Japanese tradition is somewhat of a barrier to understanding much of their full depth. I'd read somewhere that Japanese haiku works off of certain tropes (the book's introduction discusses some of this)--that if the poem is about spring, for example, it must include a cherry blossom or one of six or seven other things; if it's about winter, it much include a chrysanthemum or one of six or seven other things. Not fully knowing those tropes, I fear I unfortunately lose out on some of what's really going on. But the fact that even without a full knowledge of the culture I can still enjoy the haiku on some level shows Basho's overwhelming skill.